By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
John 9: 1-41
“They also serve who only stand and wait.” John Milton, 1608-1674, English Poet and Civil Servant, from the Poem “On His Blindness”
Somebody contacted me the other day and asked, did I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic was the fulfillment of Revelation 15, which predicts the coming of seven angels with seven plagues, a sign of the coming of the End Times. I wrote him back, no, not at all. There are have been terrible plagues in history than COVID-19. Think, for instance, of the Bubonic Plague, the Black Plague which killed some 50 million people in Roman times, and which occurred again in the Middle Ages, decimating half of Europe’s population. In the 20th Century, the world was devastated by the Spanish Flu. Twenty-seven percent of the world was infected and the dead are estimated anywhere from 17 million to 100 million. Admittedly, it’s hard to know what the ultimate outcome of the COVID-19 crisis will be. But science is far advanced from the time of the Spanish Flu, and governments cooperate more than they ever have before. My hope and prayer is that those things—with our cooperation—will keep the coronavirus far short of those disastrous numbers.
My point is, if a plague predicts the end, any one of those earlier plagues could fit the bill at least as well as coronavirus. Think too of the ecological and economic disaster of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Those events, too, were viewed by some as the sign of the end of time. I hope and pray this is a different situation. According to the scientists, it could be very different, if we all do what we’re supposed to do—social distancing, washing our hands, avoiding groups. We have to take this guidance very, very seriously, no matter how much it hurts. If we don’t, well, all bets are off.
When large scale disasters strike, we often go to large scale explanations, like God bringing judgment on all humanity. But that may be using our faith the wrong way. Could there be another way to have faith in the face of COVID-19?
Jesus is in Jerusalem and he meets a man blind from birth. His disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was blind from birth?” They’re standing the presence of the blind man saying this, the way we often do; people who are in wheelchairs often complain that people talk right over them, as if they weren’t there. I can just imagine this man yelling, “Hey, I’m right here! I’m blind, not dead!”
Jesus tells his disciples that neither is true. Sin didn’t cause the blindness. This terrible natural disaster, this poor man blind from birth, or this new and dangerous coronavirus, is not meant as judgment. It is meant that “God’s works might be revealed through him.”
Now that sounds awful, like God causes suffering just to test us to see how we’ll respond. That would be despicable. So, are those our choices? Either that God is punishing us or God is testing us? Either makes God look manipulative and cruel.
But let’s step back for a minute. The fact is that, whether we are good people or bad people, whether faithful or unfaithful or somewhere in between, which is where most of us are, we all have to deal with suffering. It’s a part of life. Ultimately we have to give up on looking for an explanation or an answer because any explanation is unsatisfactory and also quite shallow. Asking, “Why?” when it comes to suffering is what theologians call “theodicy.” Past a certain point, theodicy is pointless. It’s chasing rabbits. Suffering simply is. Why did God allow COVID-19 to happen? Why will some die and some live, some suffer and others not? What does it matter? It’s what we do about it that counts.
And that is Jesus’ point. I’m going to call the blind man “Frank” so that I don’t have to keep calling him “the blind man.” When Jesus says that Frank “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” what he means is that God will be glorified in how Frank will respond to the crisis he faces. His blindness is not a punishment and his healing will not be a sign of God’s special favor. It’s how Frank responds to those facts that will determine whether he will glorify God or not.
On the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, a radio reporter interviewed two Merrill Lynch employees who had narrowly escaped the collapse of the World Trade Center. They were in a bar remembering the 10-year anniversary. The two of them told the story of how they escaped disaster; how they helped one another out of the offices, down the interminable flights of stairs, and out of the building. It was a moving story.
But it was also ten years later. Since then the 2008 Stock Market crash had happened. The government had bailed out Merrill Lynch and whole lot of other financial industry big shots. The reporter asked them why Merrill Lynch had survived both 9-11 and the stock market crash. “Because we’re better and we’re smarter,” they immediately said. But, the reporter asked, isn’t it true that Merrill Lynch tanked in 2008 because of high risk housing loans that led to a $15 billion loss when the housing bubble burst? And isn’t true that your losses then nearly brought down Bank of America when it was trying to buy you out, and the only thing that saved either institution was the US government’s $45 million bailout? So isn’t true that it wasn’t your smarts that saved you, it was the US government?
The men shook their heads and argued. “We’ve survived because we’re smarter than everybody else,” they stubbornly asserted.
It left me with a question: how can people who’ve experienced so much disaster on the one hand, and blessing on the other, not look at life with more humility? How can they not take more responsibility and do more with their gratitude than just go out and celebrate at a bar?
One hopes that these gigantic moments in our lives would affect us deeply. They should humble us. They should call us to accountability and responsibility. As much as anything, they should be a big billboard dropped into the middle of our lives that reminds us that we are not the center of the world. When we’re confronted with these events, they are a question that life is putting to us: how will you live in this new reality?
Whether God intends them as a test I can’t answer. But they are a test, regardless. How will our faith sustain us in this hard time? How will we live faithfully in this hard time? How will we show Christ to the world in this hard time? How will we trust Christ in this hard time?
Or is our faith only good as long as the good times remain good?
Our friend Frank responds to his healing with extraordinary bravery and courage and gratitude. The pharisees confront him about his claim that Jesus healed him. Frank sticks to his guns. Here is something interesting to note. Though Frank had no control over either his lifelong blindness or his unexpected, and by the way, unasked for healing, he is now claiming full responsibility for his own life. He is not a helpless victim of circumstance. His gratitude has given him agency. It’s spurred him to take a critical stand, to speak out when it is clear that the authorities want him to shut up. This man who once begged for his living now demands the respect of those who used to give him alms. This man who was once talked down to now speaks with authority to those who think of themselves as his superiors. We don’t know if he had faith before, but he sure has it now. he is that all-important figure in the Gospel of John—someone who gives testimony. Someone who bears witness.
Witness is a funny word in Christian parlance. We talk about witnessing to other people and what we mean is telling or showing them the truth of Jesus Christ. It’s a word from the legal world. If one is a witness, if one is giving testimony in a trial, they are not supposed to be telling people their opinion, but simply reporting back to the court what they saw or experienced. It is in many ways a passive thing. You didn’t do it; you’re just reporting it. And that’s what we mean by witnessing. We are reporting the mighty acts of God. We are reporting the grace, love and mercy of God through Jesus Christ. We’re telling the world not about what we have done, but what God has done, and what God is continuing to do.
I don’t know that any of us have experienced anything like this pandemic. I wonder if anyone has, exactly the way we have. Unlike those other pandemics I spoke of earlier, we live in an age of science and global networking. We know what it is that we are supposed to do in the face of this menace.
And what we’re supposed to do is nothing.
We’re supposed to sit around the house. Not go to work. Not go to restaurants. Not travel. Not get closer than six feet to one another. Not go to church or women’s circle. Not go to your gym or your tennis match. We are called to do nothing. Nothing could be so against our nature—as human beings, as Americans, as Texans! And even as Christians, because Christians tend to be doers, because as James says, “Faith without works is dead.” We like to do.
But now we have to wait. Nothing could be harder. But waiting is one of the most important of the biblical virtues. How many times does the Bible say wait? “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…”.
Wait. Waiting for God takes faith. It takes confidence that God will act. It takes the humility to recognize that I have to resist the temptation to do something, because if I do something, I might actually make things worse. So like it or not, I am in a situation where I am a passive participant. There’s just not much I can do. I have to trust that while I am waiting, those who know what they’re doing will be acting; and more to the point, God will be acting. And so I have to wait.
So what I hope we will all do is take responsibility for our waiting. Let’s not view this as something enforced on us from the outside. Let this be a faith choice, a choice we make from within, a deliberate, responsible choice to trust God and to love our fellow human beings by waiting—by doing nothing. Don’t view this as a burden. View it as a responsibility. No, more than that—view it as a blessing: it is a way that we can participate in what the Jewish tradition calls the tikkun olam, the healing of the world. How often do we get such an extraordinary chance? And all we have to do is the hardest thing in the world—we have to wait. So rather than feeling burdened by waiting, let us choose it. Let it be an act of faith and Christian discipleship.
Right now waiting is the most responsible thing we can possibly do. Because if we wait, we will save more lives than we would if we were superheroes. If we wait, our health infrastructure will not collapse, but will be able to manage the threat of this pandemic. If we wait, we are doing the most important thing not just for our own health, but for the health of the whole world.
Though our whole nature rebels against it—though we have legitimate long-term fears about how this crisis and our inability to act will affect the economy and our own personal plans and goals—we have to wait. And so this calls for a huge amount of faith. It is a huge test of our character. It challenges us to do the things that Christians are called to do when we wait: to pray without ceasing—to engage in self-examination—and most of all, and most importantly, to remember the many times in our lives when God has been there for us when the chips were down. Read your bibles. Re-read the story of the Exodus. Think of other crises you have experienced in your life and how you weathered them—personal crises like a death or an illness or national crises like 9-11 or the Kennedy assassination. In this season of Lent remember that when the chips were down, Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again. Think about how the greatest crisis that humanity faced—the death of God—was miraculously turned into the salvation and hope of all humankind. Take some time to journal and consciously reflect on the ways that God has blessed you unexpectedly, and think about how you can live with gratitude for God’s grace.
And at the end of all this waiting, we will be able to be witnesses to future generations of the way that God sustained us in this pandemic. We saw science at its best, we saw governments and leaders and our neighbors respond with patience and self-sacrifice. And we saw suffering too but in spite of it we maintained our hope. We will tell future generations that, like those who were in the Exodus, like those who witnessed the resurrection, during the COVID-19 crisis we were witnesses to the mighty acts of God.